Until 1967, it was perfectly legal to drive whilst drunk in the UK. The police only had powers to stop you if you were driving dangerously. If you kept to the speed limit and didn’t swerve about too much, it was fine. In 1966, 7,985 men, women and children were killed on Britain’s roads, many by drunk drivers.
Barbara Castle was Harold Wilson’s Minister of Transport and was one of the most effective people to ever hold that position. She wrote off British Rail’s huge debt, sent Dr Beeching packing back to ICI, introduced procedures to make another Beeching Report almost impossible, and established the first Passenger Transport Executives, lowering the cost of travel for millions of working people in the main cities.
She also introduced the Road Traffic Act 1967 that made being drunk in charge of a vehicle not only a crime but also, as time passed, a social issue, where offenders found themselves ostracised by friends and fired by their bosses for such disgusting behaviour.
But at the time the breathalyser was introduced, Castle became a hate figure. She didn’t drive, not unusual for women at the time, but that was seen as a reason she should keep her nose out of the affairs of drivers. Her response was quick and obvious: she was a pedestrian and thus far more likely to be killed by a drunk driver than the driver himself was. Hit by a car, she would die. He would most likely walk away with a ‘slap on the wrist’ conviction for dangerous driving – a small fine, a few penalty points, the trouble of having to buy a new car.
Behind this anti-Castle attitude from drivers was another thing: she was a woman. How dare a woman tell men what to do? How dare she have an opinion on a mostly-male pursuit? Had she even asked her husband for his opinion? Shouldn’t he tell her not to be so stupid, to sit down and shut up?
Barbara Castle was many things, and “unintimidatable” is probably at the top of the list. Because of her work here, over 35,000 have not died in car accidents since 1967. Because of her work, perhaps over a million people have avoided life-changing injuries at the hands – wheels – of a drunk driver. Today you’re more likely than ever to arrive alive, and it’s thanks to Barbara Castle.
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